The secret is out.
Florida Gulf Coast University is on the national radar thanks to the unprecedented success of the men’s basketball team. The Eagles claimed space on every newspaper and sports show in the country the past two weeks as one of the biggest underdog stories ever in college basketball.
With Friday’s 62-50 loss to Florida in the Sweet 16, the run came to an end. Though FGCU made history as the first No. 15 seed to march this deep into the NCAA tournament madness, the Eagles already are looking ahead to the next chapter in their Cinderella story.
FGCU, which beat No. 2 seed Georgetown and No. 7 San Diego State, wasn’t content just to show up to the Big Dance, and the Eagles certainly don’t want to be a one-hit wonder in the annals of college basketball. With most of its roster returning, a rising young superstar coach and newfound name recognition, FGCU plans to make tournament trips a regular tradition.
Before the Eagles start making travel plans for next year’s tournament, they must address the issues that come with their sudden fame. That includes keeping their coach, putting together a schedule and dealing with the targets that are now on their backs.
COMING BACK STRONG
On talent alone, FGCU should be back. The Eagles lose two players, though they’re two of their best, but return four starters. They also have two transfers who become eligible and at least one hot-shot recruit coming in.
Sherwood Brown was the Atlantic Sun Player of the Year and led the team in scoring (15.6 points) and rebounds (6.6). Eddie Murray, a 6-foot-8 forward, was FGCU’s sixth man and provided energy and leadership on and off the bench.
The seniors will be tough to replace, but the Eagles started three sophomores and a junior this past season. Returning are A-Sun Defensive Player of the Year Bernard Thompson and conference tournament MVP Brett Comer, who was a rising star after dishing out 31 assists in three NCAA games.
“We don’t lose a lot,” Thompson said. “We’ve got a lot coming back and two transfers that can contribute. I think we can come back even stronger.”
Nate Hicks, a 6-10 forward, sat out this season per NCAA rules after transferring from Georgia Tech. Jamail Jones, a 6-6 guard who starred in high school at Montverde Academy near Orlando, also redshirted after transferring from Marquette.
The Eagles also have two freshmen who mostly rode the bench this season while learning coach Andy Enfield’s system and improved under the former NBA player development coach. Leonard Livingston, a 6-10 center, and Alexander Blessig, a 6-3 guard, could see more action next year.
“We don’t want to settle for this,” said freshman Dajuan Graf, FGCU’s backup point guard who played nine minutes against Florida. “We want to get better next year. We want to work really hard in the offseason so we can go farther.”
FGCU already has one recruit who will fit perfectly into the Eagles’ go-go-go offense. Marietta (Ga.)-North Cobb senior Jordan Neff has a highlight video on YouTube that consists of nothing but the 6-6 player stuffing dunks over opponents.
Though he signed with FGCU weeks ago, Neff should enjoy playing in newly crowned Dunk City. He could be joined by other recruits who watched in awe as the Eagles alley-ooped their way into the Sweet 16.
“It’s going to be a lot easier to recruit now,” Enfield said in the locker room following Friday’s loss.
KEEPING THE COACH
Of course, any chance of repeating this year’s success may depend upon Enfield’s return.
The 43-year-old coach has risen to national prominence because of his eclectic background — NBA shooting coach, entrepreneur, married to a former supermodel. After taking FGCU from a 20-loss team to one of the most memorable winners in college basketball history, Enfield will be mentioned in almost any Division I head coaching vacancy this offseason.
In fact, according to some media reports, he already has a couple of programs — Southern California and Minnesota — with newly created coaching vacancies interested in him.
FGCU athletic director Ken Kavanagh has openly stated he is trying to retain Enfield. The two already have discussed restructuring Enfield’s contract, which still has three years. The coach made $157,500 this past season plus $15,000 for making the team’s tournament run.
“You reward people when they’ve earned it,” Kavanagh said. “After integrity, the most important thing I’m responsible for is doing everything I can to retain our best people. Certainly Andy more than fits that description.”
Kavanagh said he and Enfield will continue discussions on a new, more lucrative contract when they get home to Southwest Florida. The athletic director said there was no time frame for when he wanted to have a deal done.
Should another team be interested in hiring Enfield, Kavanagh said the professional code of ethics dictate the school contact the AD first. Following Friday’s loss, Enfield admitted he was open to listening to offers from other programs but said it was way too early to predict his future.
“My decision will be based on what the opportunities are,” Enfield said. “I love FGCU. I have three years left on my contract. I’m not going to discuss anything else right now because I haven’t really thought about it.”
Players made no secret late Friday that they wanted their coach back. Thompson went as far to all but guarantee Enfield’s return.
“He is the program,” Thompson said. “I’m sure he’s not going to leave. After a big year like this, who would want to leave? Without him, the program wouldn’t be as successful as it is right now.”
Asked point blank if Enfield will coach FGCU next year, Thompson was confident in his answer.
“Of course. No doubt about it.”
Now that the Eagles are on the radar, next season could bring a host of new, stronger competition.
The past few years FGCU has played four or five road games at power conference schools. In return for traveling long distances for blowout losses, the Eagles earn $80,000 or more per game.
Kavanagh said he wants to get away from those games. Instead he’d like to have more home games with large crowds that make more money. The road games have been a necessity to raise money in FGCU’s first six Division I seasons.
Now that the Eagles have drummed up legions of new fans locally and nationally, the program is hoping to sell enough tickets to eventually phase out playing for money.
“You can’t play four games like that and build a program. You just can’t,” Kavanagh said. “To grow a program, it takes resources. The resources unfortunately to get where we are now have included having to have a willingness to go play for some dollars to put back in our program. We don’t have the ticket revenue and the corporate sponsors or the donor base to do it.
“In order for me to find the salary to get Andy to come I told him, ‘These are the things we have to do right now, but hopefully we can get away from it.’ Those are the types of things we have to do to get better so that you’re on more equal footing.”
Even if the Eagles do play what they call buy games -- “you get bought,” Kavanagh said -- they might not be available. Teams from the major conferences always are wary about losing to low-ranked opponents, especially on their home court, which looks bad to the NCAA tournament selection committee.
No matter who they play, the Eagles will get that opponent’s best shot. Billy Donovan, whose Florida team beat FGCU in the Sweet 16, saw his level of competition rise once he converted the Gators into a perennial title contender. Florida won national championships in 2006 and 2007.
“The biggest thing they’ll deal with right now that they have never dealt with before is they’re going to get everybody’s best shot every single night,” Donovan said. “Through success there’s a price to pay. It will be a different year for them all the way around (next season), and how well they can handle that will determine how successful they are.”
PLANNING A RETURN
If anything, this year’s run to the South Regional semifinals prepared FGCU for what it needs to do to build a winner.
Before this year, none of the Eagles had been to the NCAA tournament. They had played only three postseason games, all in the 2012 A-Sun tournament. Now they know what to expect, and they know how to win on college basketball’s biggest stage.
“We can come back stronger and have a run like this again,” junior guard Christophe Varidel said. “We want to do better and get a lower seed so the run isn’t as difficult.”
In dealing with the national spotlight, FGCU players were able to keep focused on the big picture. They realize what the exposure did for their school and their program. Perhaps more importantly, the Eagles acknowledge what the past few weeks did for them personally and their future.
“We learned that we can play with anybody in the nation,” Comer, the sophomore point guard, said. “We learned that we can literally do anything that we put our minds to if we come out with the right energy.
“I’m looking forward to our future. We have a taste of what this is like, so I think we’ll be hungry to come back to the same spot and hopefully go even further.”